Monday, August 11, 2008

an uncomfortable fit

In June an advance copy of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III showed up at work a few days before the album "dropped" (yeah, I'm hip to the lingo) and soon became the first album since 2005 to sell more than a million copies in one week. 

I listened to it, mostly because I knew nothing about Lil Wayne beyond magazine articles in which certain hip-hop peers of his claimed he's one of the best rappers around right now. Well, Tha Carter III didn't do much for me, but the one song I liked, "Comfortable," features Babyface, the real king of pop in the '90s (face the facts, Michael). As a producer Babyface was all over the radio back then, shepherding megahits like Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Eric Clapton's "Change the World," and as a performer he racked up a bunch of hits himself on the pop and R&B charts ("Whip Appeal," "When Can I See You").

On "Comfortable" Babyface provides the vocal "hook," and if it was his song alone and he had a chance to write some verses to go along with the chorus, it'd probably be terrific. As it stands, it's merely a good song, because Lil Wayne raps the verses. Aside from the line "Don't I treat you like soufflé?" his lyrics aren't a crime, to paraphrase a Babyface single from 1989, but there should be a rule for rappers whose songs utilize the talents of actual singers: Do not add your singing on top of your guest's. Babyface can sing. Lil Wayne cannot. He can grunt, but he sounds like he's out of breath throughout "Comfortable," and if you can't breathe then you shouldn't sing, especially if you're singing over Babyface near the end of the track. This isn't karaoke, dammit. It's as if Babyface's obnoxious nephew snuck into his recording studio late at night and decided to play a prank by overdubbing his wheezing onto one of Uncle 'Face's finished songs.

Remember when pop/R&B/"new jack swing" songs in the early '90s would feature a guest rapper in the slot where pop songs would feature guitar solos? Songs like Christopher Williams's "I'm Dreamin'" and Michael Jackson's "Black or White," both from '91, usually didn't credit the rapper in those days the way they're spotlighted now, with their names prominently listed on the back covers of albums and on iTunes after the ubiquitous abbreviation "feat." (For the record it was L.T.B. on the latter song, while the New Jack City soundtrack's liner notes don't list any performer besides Williams on "I'm Dreamin'.")  

And these days rappers constantly show up on each other's tracks or pop and R&B singers' tracks, sometimes making a name for themselves through cameos before releasing songs of their own. The reverse is also true, as is the case with Babyface adding class to "Comfortable." I wonder if guest rappers formed a union sometime in the late '90s after years of missing out on lucrative royalty checks. (Gangsta rappers belong to Local 187, of course.)

Tha Carter III didn't make me a fan of Lil Wayne, but judging by those first-week sales, he's got plenty already. And I have to give the self-described alien credit for one thing: "Comfortable" is more memorable than anything on Babyface's 2007 album Playlist. Would his cover of an easy-listening chestnut like "Fire and Rain" have been enhanced by Lil Wayne adding "Baby, I'm your friend / You ain't gotta pretend / We go together like the Colonel's special blend"? Maybe it's time for Wayne to actually sneak into Babyface's studio and find out.

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