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.
Mariah Carey was out the door. Ever since her career started in 1990, Mariah had been signed to Columbia Records, and she had almost certainly been the biggest and most important artist on the label’s roster. By 1999, the situation wasn’t tenable anymore. Tommy Mottola was the head of the whole Sony Music umbrella, which included Columbia. He’d discovered and signed Mariah. He’d then become her husband and, four years later, her ex. Mariah didn’t want to deal with Mottola anymore. She wanted out.
For virtually her entire tenure at Columbia, Mariah had been battling with Mottola and other associated label functionaries about her creative direction. In her marriage to Mottola, she felt like she was in prison. When she got herself out of that situation, Mariah wanted to leave the label, but she still owed the label one more studio album. That record was 1999’s Rainbow, which Mariah wrote and recorded in a quick-for-her three-month period. Once Rainbow was done, Mariah battled further with Columbia, arguing over things like album promotion and single choice.
Rainbow turned out to be the lowest-selling studio album of Mariah’s whole Columbia run. Funny thing about that, though: A relative flop for Mariah Carey would’ve been a career-highlight smash for virtually any other artist. Mariah’s worst-performing album of the ’90s still went triple platinum, and it still sent two singles straight to #1. The first of those two #1 singles also worked as a kind of coronation for the biggest, best rapper of the moment.
Mariah Carey recorded “Heartbreaker,” the first single from Rainbow, with DJ Clue, a Queens native who’d made himself a key figure in the New York rap world. Clue started off as a mixtape DJ, putting together semi-illicit compilations of new tracks that sold on street corners. (When Clue started in the mid-’90s, mixtapes were actual cassettes. Over the years, they’d evolve to become CDs and then downloads, and they would continue to have a major impact on rap music for decades to come.) Clue was a relentless self-promoter, and I mostly remember him as the guy who constantly shouted his own name on mixtapes, slathering his voice in echo and tripping all over the beats.
Clue eventually got a slot on New York rap radio, and he also founded the Elektra-distributed label Desert Storm Records in 1997, playing a big role in the development of East Coast rappers like Fabolous and Joe Budden. In 1998, Clue also released his studio album The Professional, a kind of official version of one of his street mixtapes. This was something new: Major labels trying to keep up with the street economy by offering a relatively sanitized and streamlined version of a chaotic grassroots phenomenon.
The Professional eventually went platinum, and Clue spent the summer of 1999 on the Hard Knock Life tour, a huge arena trek with Jay-Z, DMX, and Method Man and Redman. Mariah Carey had worked with a lot of rap producers by the time she linked up with Clue, but they were mostly crossover-friendly types like Puff Daddy and Jermaine Dupri, people who had as much experience with pop and R&B as they did with rap. Clue, on the other hand, was a full-on street-rap figure with no pop experience at all. Clue later told Billboard that a mutual friend had introduced him to Mariah, and I have to imagine that her decision to work with Clue was at least partially a rebellious thing. Mariah genuinely loved rap, and Clue could offer her access to any number of rap collaborators. But Clue would’ve also been exactly the type of producer who Tommy Mottola and his buddies would simply not understand.
Working with Mariah, Clue had the idea to sample a song that he’d always liked: “Attack Of The Name Game,” a funky and rubbery 1982 track from the R&B child star Stacy Lattisaw. (Lattisaw’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “Let Me Be Your Angel,” peaked at #21.) “Attack Of The Name Game,” which had only reached at #70 on the Hot 100, was the kind of record that Mariah Carey loved. It was bubbly and silly and catchy — a club jam for a simpler era. Lattisaw did some extremely primitive early rapping on the song, but it wasn’t really a rap record. “Attack Of The Name Game” had something else going for it: It was a bald ripoff of the Tom Tom Club’s 1981 club hit “Genius Of Love,” the track that Mariah Carey had sampled on her 1995 mega-smash “Fantasy.” When “Heartbreaker” came out, some critics thought that Mariah had just used that “Genius Of Love” sample again. You could forgive their confusion. Mariah hadn’t gone so far as to do that, but she was never above repeating herself.
“Heartbreaker” is an early example of the strange phenomenon of double samples. “Attack Of The Name Game” was a sort of pop-rap riff on “The Name Game,” the banana-fanna-fo-fanna song that most of us remember as a thing that you sing in kindergarten. “The Name Game” seems like “Happy Birthday” — one of those songs that’s simply always existed. But like “Happy Birthday,” “The Name Game” does have a definite history. Shirley Ellis, a Bronx-born soul singer who had a lot of success with novelty songs, co-wrote and recorded “The Name Game” in 1964, and her single reached #3. (It’s a 6.) “Heartbreaker” doesn’t have anything to do with “The Name Game,” really; it just takes the bubbling groove from “Attack Of The Name Game.” But since “Heartbreaker” is based on a sample, Shirley Ellis and her “Name Game” co-writer Lincoln Chase both got writing credits on “Heartbreaker.”
When Lattisaw recorded “Attack Of The Name Game,” she worked with a couple of faces that would become familiar. Randy Jackson, the future American Idol judge, played bass on “Attack Of The Name Game.” Narada Michael Walden, the hitmaking producer who now plays in Journey with Jackson, produced and co-wrote the song. Walden happens to be the guy who co-produced “Vision Of Love,” Mariah Carey’s very first #1 hit, and he ended up getting a writing credit on her 14th #1 hit without actually having to do anything. (Jeff Cohen, Walden’s “Attack Of The Name Game” co-writer, also got a credit.) It’s kind of a full-circle thing. Carey had come out of club-friendly ’80s R&B-pop, and Narada Michael Walden was probably the biggest producer of that whole style of music. By the late ’90s, that sound had become a nostalgic reference-point, but Mariah Carey was still going strong. I’m sure that wasn’t lost on her.
For “Heartbreaker,” DJ Clue chopped up the percolating synth groove from “Attack Of The Name Game,” and Mariah Carey, acting as co-producer, layered up her own vocals and those of her “I’ll Be There” collaborator Trey Lorenz. “Heartbreaker” is simple enough — a helpless ode to an attractive jerk who keeps Mariah’s interest even though she should know better. Here’s how Mariah describes the song in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “It was from the standpoint of girls who keep going back to that same guy and they can’t help themselves. They knew they’re going to get hurt. I’ve been one of those girls, so I know there’s a lot of them out there.”
“Heartbreaker” might be a song about a difficult romantic situation, but Mariah doesn’t make it sound that way. Instead, the song is light and happy and maybe even rapturous. Mariah’s narrator is into this heartbreaker, and she keeps repeating the phrase “gimme your love,” turning a plea into a central riff. The song itself doesn’t have much to say about the subject of heartbreakers, but it does have a great little earworm of a chorus: “Heartbreaker, you got the best of me/ But I just keep on coming back incessantly.” Mariah’s use of “incessantly” might be my favorite thing about “Heartbreaker,” but it’s not the only SAT word that she works into the lyrics. We also get “disarming,” “euphoric,” “relinquish.” Sometimes, Mariah Carey comes off like a middle-school honor student who’s been asked to use a vocab word in a sentence. It’s a tendency that I’ve always found, um, disarming.
In any case, “Heartbreaker” is less of a lyrical indictment and more of a love song. Mariah’s narrator is clearly into this heartbreaker figure, or at least she’s into the feeling that this person gives her. In that way, and in a lot of others, “Heartbreaker” comes off as a clear attempt to replicate what Mariah had already done with “Fantasy” four years earlier. When she made that track, Mariah made sure to line up a verse from the Wu-Tang Clan chaos agent Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the remix. When she made “Heartbreaker,” Mariah went out and got another New York rapper. But while “Heartbreaker” feels like an echo of “Fantasy,” the casting of the “Heartbreaker” guest-rapper makes a whole different statement. Where Ol’ Dirty Bastard brought a strain of antic, freewheeling silliness to the “Fantasy” remix, Jay-Z, Mariah’s “Heartbreaker” collaborator, radiates ice-cold control. Jay knows that he’s the heartbreaker of the song, and he’s happy to play that role.
It can be a little disorienting to study the Hot 100 charts from your own formative years. A lot of the biggest Billboard hits might be songs that you barely remember, while the figures who you regarded as absolute titans might be little more than afterthoughts. That’s what’s happening with me right now. Jay-Z eventually became a chart staple, and we’ll see him in this column a few more times, but it’ll be a long while before Jay arrives here as a lead artist. Every time we see Jay in this column, he will appear alongside a female R&B singer. Mariah Carey was merely the first.
In any case, Jay-Z was not a consistent crossover hitmaker in 1999, which is wild to me. I remember Jay being everywhere during that stretch. He was the undisputed, unchallenged king of New York and of rap in general. Walking around a college neighborhood on a weekend night in 1999, you would hear Jay records banging out of every single party. At the time, though, Jay’s biggest hit as lead artist was 1998’s inescapable Annie-sampling “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” and that song somehow peaked at #15. Before “Heartbreaker,” Jay had only been in the top 10 once — as a guest on Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be,” a #7 hit in 1997. (It’s a 6.)
Jay-Z had a long road to the top. Shawn Corey Carter was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves, who made love under a sycamore tree, which made him a more sicker MC destined for greatness. See, he was born in sewage, born to make bomb music. (On the day that Jay was born, a day that Jay has since immortalized in song, the #1 single in America was the Beatles’ “Come Together.”) Jay grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses projects, and he went to a few different high schools before dropping out to sell crack on corners. Jay would always describe this come-up in mythic terms, and he did it so well that many of us came to think of him in mythic terms. That’s self-actualization at work.
While dealing drugs, Jay fell under the tutelage of Jaz-O, a rapper from the Marcy projects who’d scored a deal with EMI. Jay appeared on a few of Jaz’s early tracks, like the deeply silly 1989 single “Hawaiian Sophie,” which would later become ammunition for the many rappers gunning for Jay’s throne. But Jaz-O was hitless; he wouldn’t make the Hot 100 until he made a guest appearance on Jay-Z’s incredible 1999 single “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” which peaked at #84. Jay also became friendly with Brooklyn rap star Big Daddy Kane. Sometimes, Jay would come out and freestyle at Kane’s shows when Kane was changing costumes. In 1994, Jay also appeared alongside fellow future Mariah collaborator Ol’ Dirty Bastard on Kane’s posse cut “Show & Prove.” (Big Daddy Kane’s only Hot 100 hit is the 1993 Spinderella collab “Very Special,” which peaked at #31. This seems very wrong, but there it is.)
In the mid-’90s, Jay-Z appeared on tracks from New York rappers like Big L and Mic Geronimo, and he kept his name bubbling. On those songs and on the freestyles that you can find out there in the ether, Jay proved his mastery of the fast-rap style that was popular at the time. But Jay’s music career wasn’t too busy. He had a whole other career to worry about. Over the years, Jay has made many references to his time moving large quantities of illicit substances in Southern states. It’s hard to know how many of Jay’s stories are truth and how many are legend, but by all accounts, Jay did very well for himself as a drug distributor. The rumor was that Jay had made a fortune in the streets and that he put some of that money into developing his rap career. Jay was always happy to play up that image: “I dabbled in crazy weight/ Without rap, I was crazy straight/ Parter, I’m still spending money from ’88.” (Jay said that in ’96.)
In 1994, after being turned down by a series of major labels, Jay-Z got together with Harlem entrepreneurs Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke to form Roc-A-Fella Records, their own label. Roc-A-Fella got distribution through the big indie Priority, and Jay released his debut album Reasonable Doubt in 1996. Jay had enough pull to get some big collaborators on that album: Mary J. Blige, Biggie Smalls, DJ Premier. The album itself is a masterpiece, a dense and allusive look at big-money criminal life. Part of the album’s magic is Jay’s confident hauteur. He raps like a guy who doesn’t need to rap. He sounds expansive and impatient at the same time, like he can’t believe he has to explain all these drug-dealing intricacies to you again. Reasonable Doubt wasn’t a huge hit, but it established Jay as a very serious rapper. It also landed Jay on the Hot 100 for the first time. Jay’s single “Dead Presidents” reached #50, thanks in part to its B-side, the Foxy Brown collab “Ain’t No N***a.”
After Reasonable Doubt, Jay and Roc-A-Fella signed a distribution deal with Def Jam. Jay’s relatively glossy 1997 sophomore album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 didn’t hit the way that he wanted, and Jay had a bad time as an opening act on Puff Daddy’s big arena-extravaganza tour. But when Jay came out with 1998’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, everything clicked. That album went quintuple platinum and sent three singles into the Hot 100. Jay used that beachhead to establish himself as the overlord of New York street-rap, to the point where all of his guest-verses felt like events. This was the Jay-Z that Mariah Carey recruited for “Heartbreaker.”
I love that stretch of Jay’s career, the Vol. 2/Vol. 3 period where he was just talking unbelievable cold-blooded shit on every song. And I love hearing Jay on “Heartbreaker,” even though Jay’s verse on the track doesn’t even have any particularly great lines. A lot of it is just the ad-libs. Jay sounds cool even when he’s not rapping, when he’s just talking about where the beat takes him or doing hypeman duty for Mariah. In his verse, Jay takes on the persona of the heartbreaker. He complains about a girl getting too possessive, trying to stop him from seeing other girls: “She wanna inspect the rest, kick me to the curb, if she find one strand of hair longer than hers.” Jay eventually says that he’s got to “send her back to her moms,” and when the girl tells Jay she hates him, he offers this: “She knows she loves Jay because she loves everything Jay say Jay does.” I believe him. For the longest time, a key part of Jay’s character was that he was the one guy who could never be girlfriended. Funny how that turned out.
“Heartbreaker” might be a totally redundant “Fantasy” redux, and it’s nowhere near as good as “Fantasy,” but I still like it. Part of it is the lighter-than-air hook. Part of it is the way Mariah intricately layers her own vocals, putting a lot of effort into making something sound effortless. And part of it is just getting to hear Jay-Z in that magical world-conquering moment, even if the Jay we’re getting is the watered-down Jay. “Heartbreaker” ultimately works as a soft, calorie-free trifle, a barely-there song that sounded good when coming out of a car radio on a hot day. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Mariah Carey made an extremely expensive “Heartbreaker” video with Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, shooting the whole thing at a movie palace in downtown Los Angeles. The plot is simple: Mariah’s boyfriend is out on a date at the movies with another girl, so Mariah and her friends show up at the theater to confront both of them. The boyfriend in question is Jerry O’Connell, still riding on the handsome-asshole persona he’d exploited so well in Can’t Hardly Wait the year before. The girl he’s cheating with is Mariah in a black wig. (Mariah called this character Bianca, and it’s the persona she’d used when secretly recording Someone’s Ugly Daughter, the 1995 alt-rock album that had been credited to the band Chick.)
Mariah plays a whole lot of dress-up in the “Heartbreaker” video. Playing both herself and Bianca, she basically gets into a kung-fu fight with herself in the movie-theater bathroom. (Mariah got members of Jackie Chan’s stunt team to teach her some moves.) She then goes and dumps a big soda in Jerry O’Connell’s lap. In the theater, Mariah and her friends watch a version of Grease that also stars Mariah. In the movie theater’s reality, then, Jerry O’Connell is cheating on Mariah with another girl who looks like Mariah, and they’re going to see a movie that stars a third woman who also looks just like Mariah. The man has a type!
Jay-Z isn’t in the “Heartbreaker” video for a supremely silly reason. Jay did record a video appearance, riffing on Scarface in a scene where he smokes a cigar in a hot tub. Mariah is in the background, dressed up in yet another alter-ego outfit. Mariah in her memoir: “I enjoyed paying homage to Elvira, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, the tortured and trapped wife who had a spectacular home and sexy designer clothes (I could relate).” But Jay had just made “Girl’s Best Friend,” a song for the Martin Lawrence movie Blue Streak, and part of Jay’s deal was that he couldn’t show up in another music video for a few weeks. Mariah came up with the idea of using a cartoon to illustrate Jay’s verse, and the version of the “Heartbreaker” video with Jay’s appearance didn’t come out until later. (“Girl’s Best Friend” peaked at #52.)
Mariah’s “Rainbow” album actually featured two different versions of “Heartbreaker,” both produced by DJ Clue. For the Desert Storm remix, Clue sampled Snoop Doggy Dogg’s beloved and supremely ignorant 1993 posse cut “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None).” (Snoop will eventually appear in this column.) Mariah recorded that “Heartbreaker” remix with her buddies and past collaborators Missy Elliott and Da Brat. (Missy’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2; it’s a 10. Missy will eventually appear in this column as a producer. Brat got to #6 with her 1994 single “Funkdafied“; it’s a 7.) That “Heartbreaker” remix is basically a whole new song, with Mariah singing Nate Dogg’s “Ain’t No Fun” melody but changing the lyrics to something other than “you even licked my balls.” The remix got its own video, and it’s a blast.
Those two versions of “Heartbreaker” show where Mariah Carey’s head was when she made Rainbow. Mariah had stopped working with her longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff because he was too close to her ex-husband. She still made ballads with collaborators like Diane Warren, David Foster, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and one of those ballads will eventually appear in this column. But Mariah was more into working with rap collaborators and singing over samples of tracks from 2Pac and Silkk The Shocker. A few months after “Heartbreaker” hit #1, Mariah would work with Jay-Z again, singing the hook on Jay’s Swizz Beatz-produced Vol. 3 track “Things That U Do.” That might be the worst song on Vol. 3, but it was also the obvious single. Instead, Jay went the less obvious route, deciding that the main Vol. 3 single should be “Big Pimpin’,” a Timbaland-produced collaboration with the Texan underground rap duo UGK. Great choice. Classic song. (“Big Pimpin'” peaked at #18.)
Mariah had other ambitions, too. For a few years, she’d been planning to make a huge cinematic debut with a movie that she called All That Glitters. The movie finally came out in 2001 as Glitter, and this experiment did not go well for Mariah. Mariah had actually considered holding “Heartbreaker” and using it as the single from the Glitter soundtrack, but she decided that the song was too fresh, and she wanted to use it right away. That was probably the right call. We’ll save the whole Glitter saga for another day, since Mariah will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Love Muffin,” MADtv‘s not-very-nice parody of the “Heartbreaker” remix video:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s IO Echo and Tokimonsta’s moody 2014 electro-pop cover of “Heartbreaker”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s trans-Atlantic R&B duo Pandr Eyes playing a meditative “Heartbreaker” cover in a 2014 live session:
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.