How do you get to be the second- or third-biggest rap song of all time? That’s the question the Flowtation Device will ponder today as we consider “Gold Digger”, Billboard’s 49th biggest hit at some point. Among raps and semi-raps, only Flo Rida’s “Low” and the Usher/Luda/Lil’ Jon behemoth “Yeah” have placed higher on the all-time list. Without considering those two for now, the FD would like to propose that Kanye’s rapping was an integral factor to the song’s success. Obviously FD is biased, but consider the argument while you listen.
First, let’s ask this: what rap songs do you have memorized? If you’re anything like the Flowtation Device, a casual rap fan for most of your life, the answer is probably Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Young M.C.’s “Bust a Move”. FD attributes this to a couple factors. First, these songs hit when FD had way more time to devote to pop radio, and way fewer pop songs already cluttering the brain. Second, their flows are in the simple “sung” style of most early rap — the couplets fall at regular intervals, and the syllabic patterns stay pretty much the same from one line to the next. Young M.C. raps with ease and authority:
*.*.*.*this / –here’s–aJAM_FOR_ / ALL.THEfel–las*tryin’ /
–toDO_WHAT_THOSE_ / LAdies–tell–us–
— while Vanilla Ice sounds like one of the proverbial Retarded Cousins:
TAKE.HEED.*causeI’Ma / LYRicAL.PO_ETmi /
AMi’sONtheSCENE.JUSTin / CASEyouDIDn’tKNOW_IT
Oh, I kid Vanilla Ice! He actually gets off some lovely syncopations in that song, whose complexity has been wholly underrated. (Vanilla Ice, on the whole, has not been underrated.) The point is this: “Bust a Move” and “Ice Ice Baby” are easy to memorize because their rhymes occur at regular intervals, because their slang isn’t terribly esoteric, and because, when they do alter their rhythmic patterns, they do so in ridiculously catchy ways. Witness:
WILLitEVerSTOP.YO. / *iDON’T.KNOW
Chances are, if you’re FD’s age and someone near you says “Will it ever stop?”, you’ll have “Ice Ice Baby” running through your head the rest of the day. Likewise this nursery rhyme sing-song cadence from “Bust a Move”:
O.K.SMART_Y. / GO.TOaPART_Y
These songs are full of non-melodic hooks that dig into our brains and don’t let go. Both were big hits, though neither was as big as “Gold Digger”. Now, “Gold Digger” also places rhymes every two bars, but it’s much more lyrically complex than those earlier songs. Syllabic patterns change several times per verse; Kanye employs many more internal rhymes than did Vanilla Ice or Young M.C. As the simplest and funniest verse, Verse 2 is closest to those precursors and also the easiest to memorize. It contains several ear-puncturing hooks that break from their surrounding patterns, namely:
EIGH_TEEN_YEARS_*. / EIGHteen–years–sheGOT. /
ONEofYOURkids–gotYOUfor / EIGHteen–years
*.*.*.IFyou / AIN’Tno*punk*.HOLla /
WEwant*pre–nup*. / WEwant*pre–nup*yeah
— which reprises Vanilla Ice’s strategy of having a bunch of burly guys shout out a memorable line. At verse’s end, we get to hear “EIGH_TEEN_YEARS” again. Catchy! But then, virtually everything Kanye says in this song is catchy. Other highlights include, from Verse 1:
ASSlikeSERe–na–tri / –na*.JENniFERlo / –pez–fo’–kids
— and from Verse 3:
but / WHILE_YA’LL_WASH_IN’watch / *him
Basically, anytime Kanye changes up his flow pattern, he adds another hook to the song. This is why, when people complain about Kanye or Vanilla Ice being poor rappers, it doesn’t really ring true — at least not as far as the aforementioned hits are concerned. (As I say, Vanilla Ice isn’t usually underrated.) Even if they don’t conjure up mindbending displays of lyrical dexterity, a la Nas or Eminem, they’re capable of creating three verses full of rhyming couplets that people around the world have effortlessly memorized. That’s some kind of feat.
Kanye gets more credit for making tracks than for rapping, and this song is a prime example of why that’s so. The beat by DJ A-Trak bounces thunderously — how’d he manage that? — and the synth bari-sax under Verse 3 is funny and irresistible, as is usually the case with bari-saxes in pop music. The Ray Charles sample is also gold. Quite simply, there are more catchy elements in “Gold Digger” than you find in the entire Billboard Top 10 some weeks, and it hit #1 the day after FD’s boy was born five years ago. The Flowtation Device has no problem considering this the 49th best pop song ever.
“Low”, on the other hand, is a different story — one that we needn’t discuss today.
(Originally posted 8/18/10.)