Sunday, October 25, 2009

#71. 'We'd never be worlds apart'

Rihanna “Umbrella”

The faceless test is the sort of thing I wish more people, especially card-carrying members of the anti-pop brigade, would employ when faced with a massively popular song. What it entails is basically imagining that you are hearing the song for the first time and have no knowledge of who it was made by, where it was made, what its underlying message is or how many other people know and like it. More simply, it entails asking yourself if you’d feel the same way about it if it were made by some unknown singer/songwriter as opposed to its actual pedigree. If I’d started doing this a few years earlier than I did, I might have been able to see something like “Toxic” or “Like I Love You” or hell, even “I Want It That Way” for the gems they are as opposed to getting them wrapped up in my blanket anti-pop stance. Part of me thinks that my recent conversion to mid-level poptard is a sort of atonement for years of ignorance and uninformed hatred of the genre, but whatever it is let this serve as a warning that the upper reaches of this list are much heavier on the mainstream than you might expect.

I think that the first song I used the faceless test on in its earliest stage of chart domination was “Umbrella.” I hated Rihanna prior to its release to be honest, and it wasn’t that she got caught in my anti-pop phase but more that her songs just didn’t do anything outside of annoy me. “Pon De Replay” was horrid, “S. O. S.” was elevated by a perfectly used Soft Cell sample but still grated my nerves, and her other early singles were forgettable at best. So when I heard the rumblings about a new Rihanna single, and one that was actually good this time, I kind of rolled my eyes. I mean, people were salivating over “S.O.S.” too and that hadn’t done anything to change my tune about her. So I heard “Umbrella” and while it certainly didn’t grate at me the way that her other singles did it wasn’t the sort of OMG AWESOME thing that so many were making it out to be. Then I listened to it with a bit more tabula rasa in mind and it all clicked. I can’t explain how the simple act of imagining I had no preconceived notions about it resulted in “Umbrella” becoming one of my favorite pop singles of the decade.

I think a lot of the credit here has to go to the secret heroes of late 00s pop, writer/producer Terius Nash (aka The-Dream) and producer Tricky Stewart. Part of removing my preconceptions about “Umbrella” was ignoring the part Rihanna herself played in it, and in doing that, the production started to really grab me in a way that it hadn’t previously. The synth buildup into the chorus is a real thing of beauty, just a simple five chord ascending pattern but rendered with such a thick tone and slightly off-beat pattern by Stewart it sounds like the most majestic build up in recorded history. No other moment really matches that, but throughout the track Stewart and Nash make great use out of what turns out to be a very limited arsenal of instruments - as someone on RYM pointed out, it’s just a girl singing over a drum machine and some synths, making it closer to post-punk than to R ‘n’ B in the abstract.

That still leaves Rihanna though, the one element that was somewhat of a hindrance to my giving in and loving this track. Let’s just say that her voice is a very…distinctive element that is largely responsible for my initial abhorrence of her work. Something about the Barbadian accent made it hard for me to enjoy her stuff before, and while nothing much has changed in that department for “Umbrella,” her voice just seems to work better here than it has before. It could just be that, like fellow 00s R ‘n’ B royalty Ciara, her voice needs the right sort of environment in order to flourish and the Nash/Stewart team found it here. Given that most of her subsequent singles that I’ve enjoyed – namely the hypnotic, MJ-sampling “Don’t Stop the Music” and “Disturbia” – have more than a little in common production-wise with “Umbrella” that would seem to be the case, but I think it goes beyond that. I mean, no level of production greatness should be able to salvage that post chorus vocalizing, yet it fucking works in a way that it shouldn’t. I’m starting to think that “Umbrealla” was just the perfect storm wherein something mediocre could thrive and evolve into a 4-minute slab of catchy, engulfing greatness. Sometimes things just work like that in pop music, and nothing can really explain them.

I should also say that if Jay-Z had left this track the fuck alone it would have been quite a bit further up this list.

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