The Number Ones

August 21, 2004

The Number Ones: Terror Squad’s “Lean Back”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.

How do you make a hit dance-craze record when you don’t dance? When not dancing is a key part of your entire persona, your worldview? Fat Joe figured it out. For a solid decade, Fat Joe was a classic New York rap hardhead, a street guy who made street records. But Joe was also a skilled networker with big ambitions, and in the early ’00s, he unexpectedly started making crossover hits. Those hit sometimes clashed with the razor-to-the-face image that Joe had cultivated. With his biggest hit, though, Fat Joe pulled off something weird and impossible. He latched onto a dance that wasn’t really a dance, and he made a dance-craze record about not dancing.

Dance-craze records can be tough. When dances are too intricate or athletic, when they involve memorizing multiple steps and then making those steps look easy, the records can leave out vast swaths of the public. That’s a big part of the reason that Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the first dance-craze record ever to top the Hot 100, remained the gold standard for so long. You didn’t need a partner to do the twist. You didn’t need a whole lot of skill, either. You could do the twist with style and charisma, but it wasn’t necessary. You just needed to be willing to wiggle your hips in public.

The rockaway demanded even less from potential dancers. To do the rockaway, you didn’t need to wiggle your hips in public. You didn’t even need to stand up. You just had to lean back.

“Lean Back” was an unlikely triumph from a familiar face. By the time he taught the world to look over their shoulders in rhythm, Fat Joe had lived a few different public lives. He’d come up as part of a cultishly beloved rap crew. He’d overachieved as a big guy and as a Puerto Rican rapper in a world that, at the time, was almost entirely Black. Joe had mentored another rap star, a generational talent, and then publicly mourned that rapper when he died young. Finally, Joe became a crossover party-rapper, but he’d already established himself as a tough guy, and that toughness probably helped him continue to thrive while the other pop-rappers of that micro-generation were fading. In Fat Joe’s one #1 hit — credited not to Joe himself but to his Terror Squad crew — you can hear that grittiness, as well as the pop instincts that Joe developed as his career evolved.

Joseph Antonio Cartagena was born in the South Bronx, and he grew up in the Forest Houses projects. Joe was around hip-hop when the culture was still in its infancy. (The Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You” was the #1 song in America on the day that Joe was born.) Joe likes to brag about his young criminal exploits; he does it on “Lean Back.” In addition to whatever else he was doing in the streets, Joe also made a name for himself as a graffiti writer and, eventually, as a rapper. Joe got his start by winning Amateur Night contests at the Apollo Theater, and he recorded “Flow Joe,” his 1993 debut single, at the behest of Red Alert, the legendary New York radio DJ.

Fat Joe, then known as Fat Joe Da Gansta, recorded Flow Joe with Diamond D, an established producer who came from his projects, and he signed with Relativity Records. Along with Diamond D, Joe joined Diggin’ In The Crates, a rap collective that also featured Showbiz and AG, Lord Finesse, OC, Buckwild, and the late Big L. (Lord Finesse and Showbiz, like Fat Joe and Diamond D, came from the Forest Houses projects.) These were all hugely respected figures on the New York underground, but none of them ever ran much risk of becoming pop stars. Fat Joe had more star potential than anyone realized. “Flow Joe” became a genuine hit, topping Billboard‘s rap chart and crossing over to peak at #89 on the Hot 100.

Joe released his debut album Represent in 1993, and he followed it with Jealous One’s Envy two years later. Joe was never the most nimble rapper on the New York scene, but he rapped with a booming authority. Early on, Joe didn’t make too much of his Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage, and he used the N-word a lot; I don’t remember anyone ever getting mad about it. (Joe is the only artist to top the Hot 100 in 2004 who isn’t Black.) On his first two albums, Joe worked with some of the most respected rappers and producers in New York: the various Diggin’ In The Crates members, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap, Raekwon, Grand Puba. Jealous One’s Envy also featured the first appearance from Joe’s protege, the Bronx rapper known as Big Pun.

Big Pun was something. Pun could make smooth pop-rap songs, and he sometimes did. (Pun’s highest-charting single, the 1998 Joe collab “Still Not A Player,” peaked at #24.) But Pun was most at home talking street shit, bringing verve and humor and tongue-twisting lyrical dexterity that almost nobody else could approach. Pun did that on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98),” the album track where he and Fat Joe flipped “Deep Cover,” the Dr. Dre track that was only a few years old at the time. Pun has lines on that song that still leave me dizzy. The most famous: “Dead in the middle of Little Italy/ Little did we know that we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddly.”

For a few years, Fat Joe and Big Pun were inseparable. They were a striking pair, these two extremely large Puerto Rican men running wild on the rap landscape. Pun was the transcendent star of the pair, and Fat Joe’s career definitely got a boost from the association even though he couldn’t do everything that Pun could do. Joe’s 1998 album Don Cartagena didn’t have any Hot 100 hits, but it still went gold. On that record, Joe had enough clout to line up guest verses from four of New York’s best rappers for “John Blaze,” an all-time classic posse cut.

In 1998, Fat Joe and Big Pun started a rap crew of their own. Terror Squad was Joe, Pun, and Pun’s friends Cuban Link and Triple Seis. Terror Squad’s 1999 debut Terror Squad: The Album didn’t really go anywhere. That’s what tends to happen when established stars release crew albums. Fat Joe was doing well for himself, but everyone saw Terror Squad as Big Pun’s crew. “Whatcha Gonna Do,” the lead single from the Terror Squad album, was just a solo Big Pun track.

Early in 2000, Big Pun died of a heart attack. He was 28. Pun had struggled with obesity for his entire life; at the time of his death, he reportedly weighed nearly 700 pounds. Fat Joe had a hard time with the loss, but he kept working. Partly as a gesture of respect, the Murder Inc. crew offered Joe a track that could’ve easily gone to former Number Ones artist Ja Rule. The Irv Gotti-produced “What’s Luv?” featured Ashanti, another former Number Ones artist, on the hook, and it became a tremendous crossover hit, peaking at #2. (It’s a 3.) Joe’s 2001 album Jealous Ones Still Envy (J.O.S.E.) went platinum, largely on the strength of “What’s Luv?” The LP also showcased some of the new members of Fat Joe’s reconstituted Terror Squad.

After Big Pun died, Terror Squad members Cuban Link and Triple Seis split acrimoniously from Fat Joe. (Joe and Cuban Link had serious beef for a while.) Joe kept the Terror Squad name, and he brought Pun’s former protege Remy Ma into the group. Remy was born Reminisce Smith — cool name — and she grew up in the Bronx’s Castle Hill projects. (When Remy was born, Blondie’s “Call Me” was the #1 song in America.) In the late ’90s, Pun heard a teenage Remy freestyle, and he was impressed enough to bring her into the studio. Pun’s album Yeeeah Baby came out shortly after his death, and it featured “Ms. Martin,” a full-on showcase for Remy. Remy also made an impression on the Brooklyn duo M.O.P.’s remix for their almighty 2000 chain-snatch anthem “Ante Up.”

The new Terror Squad was Fat Joe with Remy Ma, Tony Sunshine, Armageddon, and Prospect. Really, though, it was Fat Joe, Remy Ma, and sometimes Tony Sunshine; the other members never made much of an impression. “Lean Back” started off as a solo Fat Joe song; he’d recorded three verses over the beat. But Remy Ma demanded to be included, and she came through with a monster verse. Joe had to take one of his verses off of the song. There’s an argument to be made that Remy’s “Lean Back” appearance is still the hardest verse ever to appear on a #1 hit. But we’ll get to that.

Fat Joe recorded “Lean Back” with Scott Storch, the former Roots keyboardist who’d became a hitmaking producer and who’s already been in this column for his work on Beyoncé and Sean Paul’s “Baby Boy.” At the time, I remember Roots fans getting irate with Storch, wondering why he didn’t give that “Lean Back” beat to his old group. But “Lean Back” wasn’t this secret weapon that Storch had sitting in a vault somewhere. Joe and Storch worked together closely on the beat. Years later, Joe told Complex, “I made the beat. Whenever I work with Scott Storch, I make the beats with him. He can make any sound with any instrument and play anything you want. You just gotta tell him what you want.”

Fat Joe didn’t really make the “Lean Back” beat — he didn’t program the drum machines or anything — but he and Scott Storch did concoct the track together. In a Red Bull Music Academy interview a few years ago, Storch said that he and Joe made the “Lean Back” beat in 15 minutes: “He was definitely cheering me along and helping me sculpt it.” Joe told Storch that the track needed a big intro, and Storch gave it a big intro. Those dramatic monster-movie strings made an announcement. I can’t hear the intro without doing the “owww” ad-lib along with it.

I love the “Lean Back” beat so much. It just goes crazy. The churning string figure builds on the Eastern-style melodies that were popular in rap and R&B production around the turn of the millennium. Joe says he told Storch, “I want that shit to sound a little Arabian.” He also told Storch, “Think Belly, when they’re going in to The Tunnel to stick somebody up. I want some shit like that.”

Mission accomplished. With those strings and Scott Storch’s electronic whirrs, “Lean Back” sounds sleek and streamlined. But those drums knock. That drum-loop, with its syncopated snare-taps, has a huge strut to it. It sounds merciless and playful at the same time. “Lean Back” didn’t really sound like a classic New York beat, but it sounded hard, and you could always talk classic New York shit on a hard beat. That’s exactly what Fat Joe and Remy Ma did.

The “Lean Back” hook is specifically about not dancing — about pulling up your pants and doing the rockaway instead. You can see Usher doing the rockaway at the end of the “Yeah!” video. The whole move is literally just quietly rocking backwards. It’s maybe the least physically demanding dance move in existence. Fat Joe was never a dancer type — not even in the early ’90s, when dancing rappers were a whole lot more prevalent. The “Lean Back” hook is simple and memorable, and it tells you everything you need to know. Because the hook is so simple, Joe and Remy don’t need to spend the song talking about their hot new dance. They can just talk their shit instead.

On “Lean Back,” Fat Joe depicts himself as a classic New York tough guy. Half the cats in his squad have a scar on they face. It’s a cold world, and he’s got the Phantom in front of his old building on Trinity Ave. Haters get mad when you’re worth some millions; that’s why Joe sports the chinchilla — hurt their feelings. Joe references his Cook Coke nickname and suggests some alternatives: “Shoulda been called Armed Robbery, Extortion, or maybe Grand Larceny.”

In his second “Lean Back” verse, Fat Joe makes reference to an infamous 2003 Harlem incident: “Kay keep tellin’ me to speak about the Rucker/ Matter fact, I don’t wanna speak about the Rucker.” Kay is Kay Slay, the infamous DJ who died earlier this year and who got shouted out on a Drake track that’ll eventually appear in this column. The Rucker is the famous Harlem playground, the Mecca of street basketball.

In the early ’00s, both Fat Joe and Jay-Z sponsored street basketball teams that played at Rucker Park. Both of those teams had players who were on their way to NBA All-Star status, or who’d already achieved it. Joe had Allen Iverson, Zach Randolph, Shawn Marion, Stephon Marbury, Jermaine O’Neal, and Stephen Jackson. He had Yao Ming ready to play in a damn playground tournament. Jay had LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Lamar Odom, Kenyon Martin, and Jamal Crawford. He also had Shaquille O’Neal lined up to play center. (Shaq’s highest-charting single, the 1993 Def Jef collab “(I Know I Got) Skillz,” peaked at #35.)

Thousands of people descended on Rucker Park to watch Fat Joe and Jay-Z’s teams play each other, but that night, a massive blackout hit New York. Rucker Park lost power, and the game became impossible. The game was rescheduled for a few days later, but Jay was scheduled to go on vacation with Beyoncé. There was talk of rescheduling the game and holding it at Madison Square Garden, but that would’ve interfered with all the NBA players’ schedules. So Jay’s team had to forfeit. On “Lean Back,” Fat Joe gloats about the whole situation: “My team didn’t have to play to win the championship!” He and Jay didn’t speak for years.

On that second “Lean Back” verse, Fat Joe also uses a deeply unfortunate homophobic slur. Joe uses that word to make a point about the pop artists who “made gang signs commercial”: “Even Lil Bow Wow throwin’ it up/ B2K Crip-walkin’ like that’s what’s up!” The intent is clear: Fat Joe is a real street guy who does not dance, while these pop-rap superstars are dancers who are not street guys. You get it. But that slur, which was all over rap records in the early ’00s, ensures that “Lean Back” is one of those songs where the radio edit is generally a whole lot more enjoyable that the uncensored cut.

And then there’s Remy. I love Remy Ma’s “Lean Back” verse. She slides on that beat, radiating calm authority: “Listen: We don’t pay admission, and the bouncers don’t check us/ And we walk around the metal detectors.” (That finger-walking thing she does in the video? So cool.) Remy sounds fired-up and bored at the same time — a classic New York rap paradox. She quotes Jay-Z the same way that Joe quotes Biggie; I guess she didn’t get the memo that Joe and Jay didn’t get along. She just wrecks it. After “Lean Back,” I felt like Remy was about to become a superstar. It didn’t happen.

The “Lean Back” video does feature a few future superstars. The mid-song skit, where Lil Jon and his crew bum-rush a not-yet-famous Kevin Hart, is oddly satisfying. Two artists who will eventually appear in this column, Daddy Yankee and DJ Khaled, make cameo appearances. (At the time, Khaled was a Miami DJ and a member of Terror Squad. Yankee was an exploding reggaeton star, and he rapped on a Spanish-language posse cut “Lean Back” remix.) NORE, Tego Calderón, and the various less-famous Terror Squad artists also make appearances, along with a whole lot of scantily clad women. There’s a vague storyline about a house party, but that’s not important. What’s important is Fat Joe casually looking back over his shoulder and Remy Ma methodically throwing cash at the ground.

“Lean Back” was an anthem — a full-on New York banger that implies violence even when it’s not threatening anyone. “Lean Back” is catchy and memorable, but it doesn’t twist itself around to meet pop-radio demands. Instead, it captures that ominous street-rap feeling, that sense that anything could happen. “Lean Back” came out as the lead single from Terror Squad’s 2004 LP True Story, and it took off more than anyone was expecting. The Terror Squad album had no big guest stars, no big producers, nothing else that really sounded like a hit. Follow-up single “Take Me Home” peaked at #62, and then Terror Squad never charted again. The album didn’t even go gold.

The “Lean Back” single did go gold, thanks in part to its all-star remix. Fat Joe got Lil Jon to reconstruct the beat, giving it a crunk twist. He also lined up guest verses from two big-deal rappers: Mase, who was just coming out of his post-Bad Boy stint as an Atlanta preacher, and Eminem, who almost never guested on other rappers’ songs. All three of those figures — Lil Jon, Mase, and Eminem — have figured into this column in the past. None of them made any sense together. The “Lean Back” remix was an event on name-recognition alone, but it sounded like an awkward pile-up to me. I’ll take the original anytime. Still, I heard that remix a lot, and I’m sure it helped push “Lean Back” to #1.

After “Lean Back,” Terror Squad essentially broke up. Remy Ma released her debut album There’s Something About Remy in 2006, and she got to #90 with the single “Conceited.” The album wasn’t a hit, and Remy blamed her label and Fat Joe for anemic promotion. Soon afterward, Remy got locked up. In 2007, Remy got into a fight with a friend who she thought had stolen a few thousand dollars, and she shot her friend in the side. Remy did six years in prison. While incarcerated, she married the Brooklyn punchline-rapper Papoose. The wedding had to be delayed after Pap reportedly got caught attempting to pass Remy a skeleton key while she was at Riker’s Island, which is sort of romantic.

Fat Joe’s post-“Lean Back” career was nowhere near at dramatic. In the years since that hit, Joe has made the top 10 once; his 2005 Nelly collab “Get It Poppin’” peaked at #9. (It’s a 4.) A year later, Joe made it to #13 with the Scott Storch-produced Lil Wayne collab “Make It Rain,” but that song, at least anecdotally, seemed way bigger than “Get It Poppin’.” (Nelly has already been in this column a bunch of times, and he’ll be back. Wayne will eventually appear in this column.) Around that time, Joe was building a new reputation as one of the few New York rap veterans who wasn’t too proud to work with the Southern rappers who had risen to dominance. Joe charted many times in those years, often as a guest rapper on DJ Khaled posse cuts.

For as long as I can remember, Fat Joe has just been around. You can still find Fat Joe at all type of events. When I was covering Irv Gotti’s money laundering trail, Fat Joe showed up one day, and I bore witness to an awkward bathroom conversation between Irv’s lawyer and Joe. (Irv’s lawyer: “I’ve been following you! You’re doing great!” Fat Joe: “You’ve been following me?” This was pre-Twitter.) Joe eventually faded from the charts, but he was always visible. In 2014, Joe went viral for pitching some kind of Ponzi scheme thing called the Invisible Train. That was weird. Nobody looked good there.

Two years after that pyramid scheme video, though, something remarkable happened. Fat Joe and Remy Ma, fresh out of prison, reunited and put out a collaborative album called Plata O Plomo. The single from that album unexpectedly caught fire. On “All The Way Up,” Joe and Remy teamed up with fellow Bronx rapper French Montana, and they recaptured some of that old New York goon-rap magic. (French Montana’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) Fat Joe’s old Rucker Park adversary Jay-Z showed up on a remix, and “All The Way Up” peaked at #27. Great song. I was so amped about the short-lived Fat Joe/Remy Ma renaissance that I wrote a whole column about it.

Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s reunion album didn’t sell, and neither one of them has been back on the Hot 100 since “All The Way Up.” That still gives Fat Joe a 24-year run of Hot 100 hits. Pretty good! Joe and Remy are still around, still working. Since 2015, Remy and Papoose have been stars on Love & Hip-Hop: New York, the same reality show that helped launch Cardi B, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. Fat Joe remains a presence in New York old-head circles, and his Instagram Live recaps of Verzuz battles are extremely entertaining. I’m not expecting another commercial comeback from Fat Joe, and that’s fine. That man doesn’t need to prove anything. He already made a #1 hit out of a non-dancing dance-craze song. Let’s see anyone else try that.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chamillionaire rapping over the “Lean Back” beat on his 2004 mixtape track “Body Rock”:

(Chamillionaire will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne and Curren$y rapping extremely well over the beat from Lil Jon’s “Lean Back” remix on a 2005 mixtape:

(Curren$y’s only Hot 100 hit, the 2016 Lil Wayne/August Alsina collab “Bottom Of The Bottle,” peaked at #97. Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Flip dissing T.I., an artist who will eventually appear in this column, over the “Lean Back” beat on a 2005 mixtape:

(Lil Flip’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Lea collab “Sunshine,” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: You know what I never include in these Bonus Beats? Girl Talk tracks. It’s nothing personal. It just feels lazy. Girl Talk would be in this column all the time if I started throwing his tracks in Bonus Beats, and his tracks tend to have the effect of making me wish I was hearing the full songs that he was mashing up instead of the ADD party-mix soundbites of those songs. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to mention Girl Talk putting the “Lean Back” hook over the music from Spacehog’s “In The Meantime” on his 2010 track “That’s Right.” Here’s that:

(“In The Meantime” peaked at #32 in 1996. Don’t ask me to talk about all the other tracks that Girl Talk uses on “That’s Right”; we’ll be here all day.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The aforementioned French Montana made his big breakthrough with the 2012 track “Shot Caller.” One “Shot Caller” remix featured a whole team of New York rapper: Jadakiss, Styles P, Red Café, Uncle Murda. When Fat Joe showed up on the remix, the “Lean Back” intro announced his presence. It was cool. Here’s that remix:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You can buy it here so you can ride till you die.

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