Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Christina Milian’s It’s About Time album. Listen to the album’s song “I Need More,” buy the album and read Schnipper’s thoughts on it after the jump.
I used to listen to a lot of R&B, not so much lately. My track from her debut, It’s About Time, was “I Need More,” which wasn’t a single—“Dip It Low” was, and is also a killer, fiery pop gem, but less confused. “I Need More” was the album’s second track, produced by Swedish pop production phenomenon Bloodshy and Avant. It has a looped snippet of a flat pan flute and a very adult contemporary acoustic guitar backing with potpourri supporting it like randomly placed lasers, crunches and gang vocals, sort of like a bottling of the sounds teenagers make at the movies when something funny or surprising happens. And Christina Milian goes double time on the chorus before all the music drops and she yells, “I understand you now! You’ll never appreciate someone like me!” It could be gauche, but instead is so youthfully convicted as to be beyond reproach. “I Need More” is far from a perfect pop song, but it’s not selfish and the ecstatic gibberish that comes from its exuberance is what made it so genuinely undeniable.
Yesterday I put a new Christina Milian song on TheFADER.com called “Chameleon.” It is really, really good and it sounds nothing like “I Need More.” Where that song is extroverted, “Chameleon” is suspect, trying to be cloaked, bare not by choice but by fucked up force, like there was no budget, time or energy to do anything with greater depth. I knew I liked the song just a few seconds in when, after her initial hum, Milian takes a deep breath, one that isn’t edited out. It’s not that a replenishing breath is particularly unusual for music, but it was placed just as forceful and lengthy as the vocal it supported, like the rough draft was just as important as the final. The song is not fancy or complex from there, somehow progressing without the use of hi-hats—the staple of much pop music’s momentum—or really much else other than repeated hand drum patter. This is after the first brief second of the song is a brief piano chord chug that never repeats or reappears. The wordless chorus is supported by a echo yell, possibly by the song’s producer The-Dream. Christina Milian sing-speaks her willingness to morph into anything, at one point, my favorite point, she whispers that I can be the biggest in the room, like an elephant/ I can be the quietest, shh, irrelevant, before letting that whisper periodically overwhelm the rest of the song with no particular pattern, simply whenever she feels like hushing. The song doesn’t end with any pointed finality, just fades out arbitrarily. It’s such a peculiar gathering of ephemera, as if the overall milieu is to make a nation state from various faraway, tiny islands.
Listening to “Chameleon”, I started to think first about “Goodies,” Ciara’s first single, her collaboration with Lil Jon that heralded the brief reign of “crunk-n-b,” my beloved, deceased genre of metallic R&B and then of “Birthday Sex.” “Goodies” first seemed like a good corollary to both tracks with its cybernetic meeting, giving soft soul a hard exoskeleton. But that meeting, despite not being especially organic, was more streamlined smooth than either of Milian’s songs. “Chameleon” and “I Need More”’s appeal was in their nonlinearity. While “Birthday Sex” as a whole isn’t as sloppily wild, purposeful or not, what makes primarily so memorable (aside from the whole having sex with you on your birthday thing) is the recurring stuttered: It’s your birthday, so I know you want to ri-i-i-de out/ Even if we only go to my-y-y house. That is music for accidentally punching someone in the face to. It’s not a complicated hook, but it’s a powerful whomp on the head, like you’ve learned all the lyrics quick because you hear them repeated three times a bar, false familiarity. It’s, essentially, a trick. There’s something incendiary about that, and then enticing. Coupled with the song’s odd premise, which is taken deep with a fairly filthy request—tell me where you want your gift, girl—it’s a lopsided, un-thorough, majestic triumph. There is something undeniably appealing about the untypical in R&B, and, to me, that’s been missing from a genre that is heartily open and available.
I’ve taken to walking around playing music in public from my iPhone without headphones—almost always R&B. I haven’t reloaded the music since I got “Chameleon,” but “Birthday Sex” gets bumped regularly. That is what music is for, walk to Whole Foods, shitty cab ride, anything with drinking. There’s no reason you want any of that to be typical when it already is.