In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Pop-chart history is full of weird little twists. Some are beautiful. Some are frustrating. One of the more frustrating twists is what happened with Chuck Berry, an all-time titan who cast a vast shadow over the pop landscape. Without Chuck Berry, plenty of the songs that have appeared in this column simply couldn’t exist. But Chuck Berry himself has only been in this column once. In 1972, years after he’d ceased to be a relevant figure in pop, Berry made it to #1 with a terrible novelty song about his dick. “My Ding-A-Ling” isn’t the worst #1 hit in Hot 100 history, but it’s up there.
“My Ding-A-Ling” isn’t a bad song because it’s all about Chuck Berry’s schlong; it’s a bad song because it’s a bad song. Dick jokes don’t turn a good song into a bad one. When they’re done right, dick jokes can be genuinely fun. There’s a place for dick jokes in pop music. Consider the case of Next, an otherwise unremarkable R&B trio who conquered the Hot 100 with a frisky, silly, energetic little jam that never pretends to be anything other than a record about a boner.
“People ask me all the time how I feel about this record about a boner.” That’s Next lead singer Robert “RL” Huggar talking to Genius about “Too Close,” Next’s sole chart-topping hit. Turns out he feels pretty good about this record about a boner: “I take a lot of pride in being able to cleverly say something that fooled the world and had every radio station playing it before they realized what it was talking about. Writing it that way was intentional.”
I don’t know how many people were fooled by “Too Close.” I probably heard the song once or twice, not really paying attention, before it finally occurred to me what “you’re making it hard for me” meant. By the time “Too Close” reached #1, everyone in my high school knew it as the boner song. “Too Close” is sly in its execution, but its lyrics don’t exactly put up a smokescreen. The line was cut from the radio version, but on the “Too Close” intro, RL just straight-up says, “I wonder if she could tell I’m hard right now.” That’s not a double entendre. It’s barely a single entendre. That said, RL’s attitude is beautiful. If you write a song about a boner — a good song about a boner — and that song reaches #1, you’re allowed to be proud of your achievement. I would be.
All three members of Next come from Minneapolis. (When RL was born, the #1 song in America was Daryl Hall and John Oates’ “Rich Girl.”) RL was about 15 when a choir director introduced him to the brothers Raphael and Terry Brown, known respectively as Tweety and T-Low. The brothers already had an R&B group going, and when other singers didn’t work out, RL became their new leader. At first, the group had the terrible name Straight4ward. (Next is also a bad name, but it’s better than that.) At first, the group was mentored by T-Low’s godmother Ann Nesby, one of the lead singers for the Minneapolis group Sounds Of Blackness. (Sounds Of Blackness’ only charting single, 1994’s “I Believe,” peaked at #99.)
Straight4ward recorded some demos at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ Flyte Tyme studio. One day, the members of Straight4ward recognized KayGee, the DJ and producer for the great New Jersey rap group Naughty By Nature, in a mall. (Naughty By Nature’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “OPP,” peaked at #6. It’s a 9.) They gave KayGee their demo, and he was impressed. At the time, KayGee had his own Arista imprint called Divine Mill, and he’d signed R&B acts like Zhané and Koffee Brown. KayGee added Straight4ward to his roster, changed their name to Next, and brought them to stay with him in New Jersey.
KayGee and the young keyboardist Darren Lighty produced almost all of Next’s 1997 debut album Rated Next. It’s not a terribly interesting record. There were a lot of male R&B groups putting out records in the mid-’90s, and Rated Next easily could’ve blended in with the rest of them. “Butta Love,” the album’s first single, is a generic romantic ballad that never left any impression on me, but it was a pretty big hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard R&B chart and #16 on the Hot 100. “Butta Love” put Next in a good position. “Too Close,” their second single, exploded.
KayGee and D. Lighty built the “Too Close” beat from a groove that would’ve been familiar to anyone who’d been listening to rap for long enough. In 1979, a couple of months after the Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” the Harlem rapper Kurtis Blow came out with his debut single “Christmas Rappin’,” a wonderfully silly track about taking Santa Claus, “a red-suited dude with a friendly attitude,” to a party. When Santa hits the dancefloor, he leaves an impression: “Every young girl tried to rock his world, but he boogie oogie oogied till he had to go.”
“Christmas Rappin'” came out in the era when rap records still used studio musicians, before anyone had even thought to use sampled loops or drum-machine beats. Blow released the track on Mercury, and it’s probably the first rap single ever to come out on a major label. “Christmas Rappin'” didn’t make the Hot 100, but it led to a long career for Kurtis Blow, who might’ve been the biggest rapper in the world for a couple of years. (Blow’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Basketball,” peaked at #71.) KayGee and D. Lighty didn’t sample the groove from “Christmas Rappin'”; they replayed it in the studio. Kurtis Blow and all of his co-writers got writing credits on “Too Close.”
In the context of “Too Close,” that slowed-down “Christmas Rappin'” groove sounds gorgeous — the bouncy bassline, the itchy drums, the funky little guitar interjections. There’s some old-school strut to the track, but it’s also sleek and streamlined. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, KayGee explains why he used that track: “I heard that song all the time growing up. It brought brightness to the room or the car or wherever, and I felt if we put the right lyrics on top of that beat, we could bring that same magic back in the ’90s.”
The right lyrics, it turned out, were punchlines about boners. While they were staying with KayGee in New Jersey, the members of Next would go out to a local club called the Peppermint Lounge. (This isn’t the New York Peppermint Lounge, where former Number Ones artists Joey Dee And The Starliters were once the house band. It’s the Peppermint Lounge in Orange. Different time, different place, although people probably also got boners while doing the Peppermint Twist.) At the club, some girls had told the singers that they would sometimes — I’m quoting RL here — “dance up on guys to see what the guys were working with.” Tweety has given his own version of the story to Genius, and it’s good enough that I’m just going to quote it at length here:
RL and I are on the phone with the females, and we were asking them, “Yo, so have you ever felt a guy get aroused on the dance floor when you’re dancing?” And they were like, “Yeah.” And we were like, “No. How does that feel?” And they were like, “We do it on purpose.” And we didn’t expect that answer. We were like, “What?” And they were like, “Yeah, we do it on purpose.” So then we were like, “Is that a deal breaker?” They were like, “Yeah, if it ain’t…”
RL and Tweety wrote the “Too Close” lyrics after they heard KayGee and D. Lighty’s beat. The hook came first: “Baby, when we’re grindin’, I get so excited/ Ooh how I like it, I try but I can’t fight it.” From there, everything came together in a few minutes. All of the song’s lyrics come back to the boner. The dancefloor-erection situation is a pretty common one, and it probably wasn’t too, um, hard to come up with some of those lines: “Now girl, I know you felt it/ But boo, you know I can’t help it.” Tweety had the idea for a call-and-response with a female singer, and Vernell “Vee” Sales, the female half of the Divine Mill R&B duo Koffee Brown, sang the lines about dancing kind of close and feeling a poke coming through on you. (Koffee Brown’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “After Party,” peaked at #44.)
That one extended boner joke — pun intended — really shouldn’t be enough to sustain a whole song, but it is. Maybe “Too Close” works because of that bubbly, efficient groove. Maybe it works because of the way that singsong melody sticks in your head. Maybe it’s the simplicity. There’s not a lot of showy melisma or layered harmony on “Too Close.” The Next singers have personality — I always liked how RL sang that line about wanting you so bad, sexual-lee — but they never try anything too rich or sophisticated on the song. Even the bridge is just a back-and-forth chant about loving when you shake it like that. The whole thing just has a nice feeling to it. It’s horny but not tawdry, silly but not childish. You can tell that these singers know that they’re getting away with something, even as they let the entire world in on the joke. (I can attest that DJs at high-school dances were not scared to play “Too Close.”)
“Too Close” isn’t exactly a novelty song, but it’s also not really a building block for a sustainable career. Still, Next kept making hits for a little while. They followed “Too Close” with the sunny ballad “I Still Love You,” and that one peaked at #14. Rated Next went double platinum. In 1999, RL and the Canadian singer Deborah Cox released the dull breakup ballad “We Can’t Be Friends,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 3.)
In 2000, Next released the sophomore album Welcome II Nextasy — excellent title — and they made it to #7 with the playful, disco-flavored lead single “Wifey.” (It’s a 7.) The album stalled out at gold, and RL released the solo album RL: Ements — terrible title — in 2002. RL’s solo album bricked, and none of its singles made the Hot 100.
Eventually, Next made their way over to J Records, the label that Clive Davis launched after he got fired from Arista. In 2002, shortly after guesting on Jaheim’s #28 hit “Anything,” Next released their album The Next Episode. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s three albums and three titles with puns on the word “next.” The Next Episode flopped, and Next broke up before long. They’ve since reunited, and they still play shows on the R&B-nostalgia circuit. They’re still best-known for a record about a boner, but it’s a good record about a boner. They should be proud of that. That’s a whole lot more than most of us can claim.
BONUS BEATS: In the UK, Next’s “Too Close” only made it to #24. In 2001, however, the UK boy band Blue released a thoroughly pointless cover of “Too Close,” and it became a #1 hit over there. Here’s the video for the Blue version:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2015, a guy named Nicholas “Downgoes” Fraser recorded a 10-second Vine of himself asking why the fuck you’re lying, doing it in a needling singsong to the tune of “Too Close.” That Vine went mega-viral, and Fraser’s face instantly became a meme, a clear signal that somebody was lying about something. Vine no longer exists, but here’s that video, which remains extremely funny for reasons that I cannot explain:
Eventually, Fraser turned “Why You Always Lying” into a full song. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Omarion’s video for his 2017 single “BDY On Me,” which interpolates the melody from the “Too Close” hook:
(Omarion’s highest-charting single is the 2006 Timbaland collab “Ice Box,” which peaked at #12. As a guest, Omarion made it to #4 on Bow Wow’s 2005 single “Let Me Hold You.” That’s a 4. As a member of B2K, Omarion will eventually appear in this column.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Shania Twain’s dizzy bubblecountry love song “You’re Still The One” peaked at #2 behind “Too Close.” It’s an 8.
THE ASTERISK: Natalie Imbruglia’s primo adult-contempo jam “Torn,” a cover of a song originally recorded by the LA band Ednaswap, reached the top of Billboard’s Radio Songs chart while “Too Close” was at #1 on the Hot 100. “Torn” remained atop the Radio Songs chart for 11 weeks. At the end of 1998, Billboard finally changed its rules, allowing songs onto the Hot 100 even if they’d never been released as commercial singles. By that point, “Torn” still had enough juice to reach #42. If Billboard had changed those rules a few months earlier, “Torn” would’ve probably made it to #1. It’s an 8.
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.