Jesse Jarnow

“baby boy” featuring sean paul

#2 this week, #4 last week, 6 weeks on the chart.

My first collection, at least that I can remember, was baseball cards. I loved completing sets — getting a sequence of card numbers, getting a few cards of the same player, of the same team. As far as my pop collection goes, “Baby Boy” is officially a member of a set. It’s part of two sets, actually. At least this week, it fills in the hole between #1 (“Shake Ya Tailfeather”) and #3 (“Right Thurr”), both of which I’ve listened to and written about. It’s also my second Beyonce song (with “Crazy In Love”). So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. And which also means I can start generalizing/theorizing a little more. Yay.

On “Crazy In Love,” Jay-Z’s rap made a weirdly literal interpretation of craziness (just as bizarre as those Greil Marcus descriptions of What The Songs Really Mean). Here, instead of “crazy,” the concept is “fantasy” — as in the chorus of the song: “Baby boy, stay on my mind, fulfill my fantasy.” So, again, there’s this literal undercurrent to it, as the song brims with cool escapist cues. Frickin’ sitars, for example. They’re awesome — squiggly and completely weird during the intro, dropping curiously into the verse, but then they kind of just morph into the instrumental bed of the track until they’re completely indistinguishable (though brought back for a short solo/fill during the outro).

Then, there’s Sean Paul, who toasts through his breaks and does vocal fills throughout that add reggae off-rhythms to Beyonce’s lead. As a musical trick, that’s cool, but it also works with the fantasy conceit of the tune. Amidst dance pop (and especially atop the sitars and other noises), Paul’s vocals are exotic, the singer’s fantasy, and the subject of the tune.

All this connects back to Greil Marcus again, oddly. I read this quote when the article first came out, but a post today on RockCritics Daily reminded me. Anyway, Sir Greil posits, “I really used to believe, and I haven’t any reason to think differently, that in the ’50s and ’60s, with clear exceptions that you find out about later, for the most part the best records did break through, did get heard. There were exceptions to that, but the cream did rise to the top–I think that’s true. Nobody can make that argument today. You simply cannot make an argument that the top 10, the top 20, the top 40 on the Billboard charts of any given week represent the most adventurous, the most challenging, the most creative, the most surprising music being made today. It would be a ludicrous joke to try to make that argument today. It’s been a long time since the most striking work was showing up in those kinds of charts.”

There’s certainly some grumpy hippiness to what he’s saying but, for the most part, he’s right. The most adventurous music isn’t on the pop charts. But, that’s not what the pop charts are for. That’s not what pop is for. It can be, and it’s exciting when it is. But, for the most part, that’s what the avant-garde is for. And that’s not to separate the two, necessarily. There is an important correlation between them, as experimental ideas begin to infiltrate the mainstream like applied, functional research. So, “Baby Boy” by Beyonce has some shit going on it that wouldn’t be possible, even in the ’60s: a typical pop tune, fused with Indian melodies and Jamaican rhythms. Likewise, within that, there are all manners of experiments: big block piano chords (hints of Cage?), fractured electronics, irregular handclaps. Yeah, good stuff. I like Beyonce.